The Hotel et Des Palmes in Palermo has a long and venerable history. It started out as a private residence for the Ingham-Whitakers, the Anglo-Sicilian family of marsala fame, before becoming a hotel in 1876. In 1907, Ernesto Basile gave it an Art Nouveau make-over, transforming the hall into the marbled atrium it is today. His stile liberty was also responsible for the decoration found at one of Palermo’s other magnificent grand hotels, the Villa Igiea.
By its very nature, any such establishment will play host to the rich, famous or even infamous; its rooms and salons witnessing a snapshot in the lives of its illustrious lodgers. Although hotels are transitory environments, and the Des Palmes is no exception, some of its visitors have left an indelible mark on the pages of the Grand Albergo’s guestbook. The cantankerous German composer, Richard Wagner, was the celebrity visitor par excellence. He completed the last of his Operas, Parsifal, whilst gazing out over the roof tops of Palermo, a city so removed from the northern thunder of his mythical inspirations.
In his book, Princes Under the Volcano, Raleigh Trevelyan recounts the story of the composer’s relationships with the socialites of the day, and his relocation to the Prince of Gangi’s private villa. It seems that the German complained of the hotel’s expense, but his reprimands fell on deaf ears, as the proprietor asked to be compensated for all the months he had booked in advance. Tina Scalia Whitaker, who had married the heir to the Whitaker fortune, also fell foul of the mercurial Wagner. She found him arrogant, domineering and far too molly coddled by his wife, Cosima. Despite such an odious reputation, the Palermitani have flattered the composer’s memory with a neighbouring street named in his honour, Via Riccardo Wagner.
In 1885, the French writer Guy de Maupassant stayed at the hotel. A chance encounter at the entrance informed him of the musical maestro’s previous visit and his volatile temperament. Ignoring the negatives, he was enthralled and immediately went in search of the manager, asking to be shown the suite formerly inhabited by the man from Bayreuth. Initial reactions were a bit disappointing, as the well-appointed rooms displayed little sign of Wagnerian influence. Desperately trying to capture his spirit, his muse, Maupassant rummaged through a linen closet and was assailed by a powerful smell of rose essence. ‘A delicious and powerful perfume blew out, like the caress of a breeze passing over a field of roses… I inhaled this breath of flowers, enclosed in this piece of furniture, forgotten here, a captive.’ According to the manager, Wagner liked to soak his bed clothes in this pungent perfume.
The fragrant traces of a belle époque good life were certainly no longer apparent in the sad tale of Raymond Roussel, author of Locus Solus. Roussel was a French novelist, playwright and poet, a surrealist whose work would later influence New York poets such as John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch. Largely unsuccessful in his lifetime, he spiralled into drug addiction, both fuelled and exacerbated by mental health problems. In 1933 he checked into the Des Palmes after putting his Parisian affairs in order. His parents, scandalised by his homosexuality, had employed a “mistress” to accompany him – surmising an unmarried heterosexual liaison would be more socially acceptable than the alternative.
His dangerously high barbiturate intake led to the inevitable overdose, half-hearted promises to seek a cure, an attempt at slashing his wrists and a second overdose which proved fatal. The circumstances around the writer’s death were investigated in Leonardo Sciascia’s book, Atti relativi alla morte di Raymond Roussel and have also inspired a novel bearing the hotel’s name by Jean-René Selva.
Other celebrity guests have included the American author, Arthur Miller, future Italian Prime Minister, Francesco Crispi and American General, Charles Poletti, who made it his Second World War headquarters. In 1957, building on links forged by expatriate Mafiosi implanted by the American occupation force, the hotel was even the location for a meeting of organised crime families from both sides of the Atlantic.
Society soirees, suicide and sexual intrigue: the Grand Albergo et Des Palmes has had it all. As a final flourish, in common with any destination worthy of a film noir, the hotel architects also created a secret passage that ran under the street to the Anglican church opposite. It allowed the Whitakers unobserved access to their own place of worship, a seemingly paranoid measure which would hide them from the enquiring eyes of their fellow citizens.
Andrew and Suzanne Edwards